The Privilege of Civility

My progressive and liberal friends are arguing again.

The midterm elections are approaching. We’re reeling from several acts of violence including shootings that killed eleven at a temple and two at a grocery store, as well as over a dozen bombs mailed to prominent Democrats. Thousands of Hondurans are marching towards the US border despite threats from the Trump Administration. News of the Saudi Government’s possible involvement in the brutal slaying of an American journalist and of a Supreme Court Justice’s alleged sexual assaults are fading away.

So the argument has come back: How do we reach across the gap? Should we reach across the gap? Why would we reach across the gap?


Here is the argument for “common ground”: By finding those values that the majority of Americans share, regardless of political background, we can find the unity with which to build bridges. Robert Reich, for instance, claims these five principles form the basis of the American Social Contract:

  1. Everyone should have an equal chance to get ahead.
  2. No one should be discriminated against based on gender, race, and so on.
  3. No one who works full time should have to live in poverty.
  4. People should work hard to do their best, but they deserve help if they truly need it.
  5. No one should have special privileges based on wealth or power.

While I appreciate the intent, I simply don’t agree that people who continue to support the presidency of Donald Trump (2/5 of Americans) truly agree to these principles. By supporting Trump and other prominent Republicans like Mitch McConnell, they’re supporting politicians who actively sneer at most or all of these.

For that matter, several of these are not in fact rooted deep in our culture. Our nation was founded on bigotry hidden behind egalitarianism, classism hidden behind equality, and libertarian indifference to failure that they didn’t even bother to hide.

The Founding Fathers wanted what was best for affluent, white Christian men. This is the America that Trump and his supporters want when he wants to make America “great” again. There is very little common ground between that and the liberal view that Reich is framing as our Social Contract.

And to the point that conservatives claim to support any of those statements in polls, their votes continue to support the politicians who undermine each of them. As James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”


Here is the argument for civility: People are rarely swayed by hostility. If we want to bring fence-sitting allies into the fold, we need to speak to them in a way that doesn’t offend them.

I do think it’s important to distinguish civility from compromise, something that we tend to stumble on. Writing in Time, Tayari Jones relates a story about her childhood. After she puts her moral values (concerning Gulf’s support for Apartheid) above her desires (to go to the zoo with a friend), her father tells her to thank her would-be host. “But he didn’t tell me to say I was sorry,” she writes. “My father was then, as he is now, a man of great civility, but he is also a man with a steady moral compass.”

This is the distinction between civility and compromise: We can be civil, we can fail to fall back on hostility and aggression, while at the same time refusing to veer away from our moral values.

There is a place for civility in arguments, but there is also a privilege in civility. It is best applied when we have a lot to lose from hostility and nothing to gain from it. Some people are forced into civility because of the station society has allotted to them; some people can enjoy the benefits of civility because they’re not under immediate risk anyway.

There is also a ponderousness to the change brought about from civility. We cannot currently afford that ponderousness.

When I am being punched repeatedly in the face, at what point am I permitted to stop saying, “Please stop,” and instead, start punching back?


A scolding insistence on civility disregards the history of violence from the opposition. Last year, progressives laughed when Richard Spencer was punched in the face during an interview.  “Punch a Nazi” became a rally cry, while others fretted about the casual use of violence making us no better than the other side.

Later that year, a White Nationalist drove into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. This was not a punch in the face, this was murder.

I am not a violent person. I can be harsh and unyielding with my words, but it is my nature to strive to, at the least, be civil. I try to walk away. I am not personally espousing violence.

My point is that calls for civility, especially when drenched in scolds about reaching across the aisle, come from a place of privilege. I am a white man. I enjoy a good deal of privilege. I acknowledge this, and will not insist that others who are fighting for social justice and equity be “civil” lest they alienate people who deserve to be alienated anyway.


Which brings me back to my initial questions. When should we reach across the gap?

Recently, Caitlyn Jenner admitted she was wrong about Trump, and renounced her support. The response in my social media sphere was fairly uniform: Screw that noise. Too little, too late.

Earlier, Omarosa Manigault Newman was fired from the Trump Administration, leading her to tell all about the inner workings. The black voices on my social media said: Yeah, no, she’s not black anymore. Go away.

Jenner and Newman came around on their own. Now they have a long road if they seriously want to prove themselves to their respective communities, and it’s not up to the oppressed communities to welcome them back.

I believe the reason why we liberals are even talking as much as we are about “civility” and “common ground” right now is that we’re worried about the midterm elections. Despite the trainwreck that is the Trump Presidency on most issues, the GOP is expected to hold the Senate, and has a chance to hold the House. (As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight says there’s a 6/7 chance Democrats win the House, and a 5/6 chance Republicans retain the Senate.)

In other words, I’m not sure how much we really want people to change. We want to reach across the gap to pull enough people to our side to gain leverage.

But as we do so, as we chide our more vocal activists to find “common ground” and to be “civil,” we wind up hurting people that have already been betrayed over and over by our system in order to appease those who have been complicit in the oppression.


In defense of civility, I am known to reference the words of Representative Barbara Lee (paraphrasing the Very Reverend Nathan D. Baxter), “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

But this does not mean that we should always suffer assault with compassion. We have the right to defend ourselves, and we have the right to turn away from people who continue to support prejudice, assault, and cruelty.

There is a fine line between civility and being a sucker. There is a fine line between finding common ground and finding ourselves underground.

The ground upon which I stand, I can share. If people want to share it, great. But none of us should cede our own ground with the goal of appeasing people who have no interest, themselves, in bending.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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